How Do I Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Tour
August 25, 2017 7:58 PM   Subscribe

My partner would like to take a guided tour of Taiwan during our vacation. I always do self-guided travel and am afraid it will be awkward. Is there a way for it to not be?

My wife and I are taking our honeymoon this Fall. We'll be spending a couple weeks in Taiwan, and a couple in New Zealand. Some of the time in Taiwan will be spent with her family there, but there's five days we'll have by ourselves. Her mother (who's offered to pay for much of the expense), signed us up for a package tour of the country, of the sort the makes me cringe. My wife and I would prefer more freedom and outdoor activities. (She's never spent time in Taiwan before except to visit relatives.) Where we differ is that she'd genuinely prefer a guided tour, and I'm afraid I'd hate it.

A year ago we visited Slovenia, and canceled the tour she wanted to do because it turned out we'd be the only ones on it. I was really uncomfortable about spending a week just the two of us and a guide. It seemed super-awkward to me, where I didn't think I'd be able to relax. So she agreed to go self-guided instead. I understand that it's only fair I try it the other way this time. And it would also make her family happy, who are worried about us traveling alone for some reason.

But I'm still worried that if we book a tour with an agency, that no one else will sign up for those particular dates, and we'd end up as a group of two. Even though the itinerary we're looking at seems fine, it just seems really weird to have someone else hanging out with us for a week, while we hike, cycle and site-see. I've never been in that kind of social dynamic, but it just makes me cringe with potential awkwardness. (And the thought that if it doesn't turn out well, it would be hard to walk away from once we start? I guess?)

So I feel that what my partner is asking is reasonable, but I don't know how to frame it in my mind so that it seems okay. Could it be? Is there some other solution I'm not seeing? If it was with another couple even that would be fine with me. (But the sort of package tour that's likely to be popular is also likely to just be bus trips between tourist sites, and neither of us want that.) My partner has said that she's fine with doing the New Zealand part self-guided, if that's what I want.
posted by serathen to Travel & Transportation around Taiwan (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
A guide that's just with the two of you is working for you. You're not along on their tour: they are there to explain to you what you want to see. Functionally they're your private guide. It's actually a way WAY better situation than one where you are just part of a larger group, and you have to more or less go where you're told.

That said, you do need to control the situation, and not be afraid to speak up, because yeah, otherwise you will sometimes get guides who are all "and now we will stop at this souvenir shop [that my cousin runs]" when it isn't at all what you wanted. You just need to tell them "nope, we'd like to forge ahead to the next stop" or "we want to stop for food now, not later" or whatever it is you want.

And if you do hate them after all, you just say "Phil, it's been a delight, but we're on our honeymoon and I just want to be alone with my wife, I'm sure you understand," tip him decently and leave.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:26 PM on August 25, 2017 [14 favorites]

I used to be like you, then I went on a couple of package tours that were absolutely fantastic. Don't rule them out as an entire category; it could be a great experience, if you get the right group.

Given that you've literally never tried it, you're basing your feelings on nothing more than a hinch at this point. I do feel that in the spirit of matrimonial compromise and harmony, you should do this small thing for a small portion of your honeymoon.

The compromise of seemingly getting a tour more sorted to your preferences has already been made: pushing further is not compromise, it's getting what you want.

Research a good tour, and try it, you might surprise yourself.
posted by smoke at 8:30 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm generally anti-tour, preferring to make my own way and wander about, but when my SO and I got a guide in Borneo once it was just the two of us and a guide, and it was great. As mentioned above, that's your personal guide, and they'll likely be happy to customise your trip or give you space.
posted by pompomtom at 8:34 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

How good is your Chinese? I've been to Taiwan a few times solo with two dozen words of survival Mandarin and outside Taipei (where you can just about get by wih no Chinese in main tourist areas like the Taipei 101 area and the Shilin market), English-language signage and information is...spotty...outside of global chains and the airports/high-speed rail stations. I spent hours in Hualien, Taichung and Kaohsiung looking for a place to eat with an English menu that wasn't a fast-food place or a 7-11, for example. (Tainan was a bit easier, oddly.) A tour might help avoid this.

Taiwanese people, as I am sure you know, are extremely warm and welcoming but may not be equipped to help you enjoy your visit to the fullest in English, especially outside the main cities - it's a bit tricky to get the best out of the country without a bit of research. The newish Rough Guide to Taiwan has been my bible and has proved accurate and helpful. On the guidebook's recommendation, I emailed my hostel in Hualien and booked a day tour with an English-speaking taxi driver to Taroko Gorge and it would have been virtually impossible to cover that much ground and see as much as I got to without her.

That said, it's definitely worth checking the itinerary carefully, liaising (gently) with your MIL and seeing if day-tours are a better answer for you. My visits have all been fun and quite adventurous because of my limited Chinese proficiency; perhaps your partner's family sees that sort of thing not as fun but as a hassle worth avoiding, or perhaps your partner doesn't want to do all the linguistic heavy lifting if you are not proficient as they are in Chinese and a tour neatly avoids this.

Also, keep in mind that your tour might take you off the beaten track to places you'd normally not be able to fit into a short visit because the logistics are tricky without help; various Taiwanese national parks have a permit system to organise hikes and visits to remote areas, for example, and I would assume a tour would sort this out so you could just show up.

To wrap up, Taiwan is a more challenging destination without language skills than most of Europe or southeast Asia, and a tour could help you really get more from your visit than doing your own thing.
posted by mdonley at 9:18 PM on August 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, a five-day tour of the whole island sounds like a lot to squeeze in! I happily spent a four-day visit in just Tainan and the surrounding area. Take a careful look at the itinerary: if it's just five days going to one or two places up and down the west coast by high-speed train that's probably just doable, but if it's, like, a day in Kenting, a day in Tainan, a day at Sun Moon Lake, a day at Taroko, and a day in Beitou? I'd be quite worried it would all seem like a massive blur, with the tour guide narrating the history of the island over the bus' PA system in between forgettable meals at tourist-filled restaurants, pre-scheduled shopping and 'cultural' events, and a lot of time in transit.

Can you share the itinerary here? Perhaps other Taiwan-aware MeFites can offer suggestions.
posted by mdonley at 9:27 PM on August 25, 2017

We hired a guide for three days. Just us and him in a van. Where he took us was great because we would never have seen the areas without a vehicle. It was in south central Taiwan. It was worth the cost. We told him what we wanted to see and he took us around. Dropped us at our hotel at night and returned in the morning. He was an Irish expat and a sexist asshole. I am not recommending him but am recommending hiring someone other than your MIL as a guide.

It's your Honeymoon. Don't spend it with your MIL.
posted by cairnoflore at 9:39 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

mdonley, we're looking at this trip through Taroko Gorge, Sun Moon Lake and Alishan. Which seems reasonable from what I've read my guidebook. The original tour my mother-in-law had in mind I think was closer to what you're describing.
posted by serathen at 9:53 PM on August 25, 2017

In my experience, the social dynamic is not that awkward. The guide typically likes their job enough to stay in it, and wants you to enjoy the tour. They also require a LOT less work to plan and organize, both in advance and on the ground. For newlyweds, especially if you are traveling after your wedding, this could be a huge benefit.

You can always tell your guide, "hey, thanks, we'll take a cab back" if they're getting ready to end the day and you want to stick around.
posted by samthemander at 11:09 PM on August 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hmm...reading that itinerary, it seems like you do a lot of "pass by" and "drive past", especially on day 2 and day 5 (which only seems like half a day?). I'm not sure how to solve that problem, exactly, given Taiwan's geography, and I'm sure you'd enjoy the scenery. But two hours of bike rental at Sun Moon Lake won't get you even halfway around it; you also seem to not do the cable car (which is gorgeous!).

Here is what I would do. I would rent a car and self drive this same itinerary, especially to lengthen the time in Alishan on day 5 (you could spend the whole day and then drive to the west coast, drop the rental at Chiayi HSR station and be back in Taipei in under an hour; trains run very late, like until midnight). This would also let you spend more time in Taroko and at the Qingshui Cliffs, both of which are fabulously scenic and thrilling to drive through. Google puts the whole thing at about 12 hours of driving; over 5 days that seems quite manageable. Accommodation is easily booked online and all road signs in Taiwan are written in both Chinese and Latin characters.

Obviously you need to think about family dynamics but it's quite doable to manage this trip on your own.
posted by mdonley at 11:56 PM on August 25, 2017

We did Taroko Gorge using a driver we found at the train station, then went river rafting somewhere near by, and then hooked up with the guide and went to sun-moon lake for five minutes. We didn't like it - too touristy for us. We went to some beautiful out of the way temples and tea fields. I wish I could remember where we went. I prefer a private tour to a tour like you are describing. I want to skip what I don't like and linger where I am enjoying the scenery.
posted by cairnoflore at 12:20 AM on August 26, 2017

For that particular itinerary of Taiwan (Hualien, Ali Mt., Sun Moon Lake), you would be better going along with a tour group than by yourself since arranging transportation, especially with no Chinese, would be a pain.

That being said, you totally could do a self-directed tour in Taiwan that doesn't stick to that exact itinerary (and as mdonley says, that particular itinerary does seem overly ambitious). I'd do Taipei for two days (MRT is uber-conveneient and lots of English around), day trip to Jiufen (pretty easy to get to via bus from Taipei), take a train down to Hualien to check out Taroko (train tickets to Hualien can be problematic on short notice or weekends, so you might be well served by a day-long tour here), and either 1) cycling outside out Hualien (there are some seriously beautiful routes you can do over 1-3 days) or 2) check out either Yilan or Keelung in the northeast or 3) another day in Taipei or 4) day trip to Tainan on the west coast.

IMO, Sun Moon Lake and Alishan are moderately overrated and not worth it. My guess is that their scenery would pale in comparison to NZ and thus you should focus on things that are particular to Taiwan, like bustling Asian metropolises, food, tea and temple culture.

Here is what I would do. I would rent a car and self drive this same itinerary,

Renting a car in Hualien and driving down the east coast to Taidong and maybe even over to Kenting could be very nice. But I would not wish having to drive anywhere on the west coast or in an large city on my worst enemy.

Source: have lived in Taiwan for 15 years.
posted by alidarbac at 8:03 AM on August 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

To set your mother-in-law's mind at ease, Taiwan is in no way dangerous for foreign tourists. And every weekend we were there during my husband's two-month mini-sabbatical stay in Taipei, we went out and did the major sites as day trips via high-speed train. (You can get from Taipei to Kaohsiung, on the south side of Taiwan, in 90 minutes.)

If you only have five days, it's not nearly enough time to circumnavigate Taiwan properly, and you really don't want to spend all that time on tour buses. I'd recommend spending half in Taipei and half in the area around Kenting, which has amazing coral beaches and mountains and miles of emerald-green rice fields. Once there, we rented e-bikes to get around. As someone else said, outside the big cities people are friendly and helpful but the language barrier is greater.

Or make Taipei your base (I have no words to describe Taipei; you just need to be there) and do day trips. Taroko Gorge is a must. Sun Moon Lake is nice particularly for the temples above the lake (including one that houses the relics of the famous Buddhist monk Xuanzang). The hike up to them is worth all the tourist craziness below. (Don't go to the aboriginal theme park.) Sun Moon Lake is also close to Yushan National Park and the narrow-gauge Alishan Forest Railway, both of which are spectacular but which we didn't get to visit, sadly...that might be another good multi-day trip for you, if you're so inclined.

There will be crowds wherever you go. You'll get used to it. But really, no guided tours, and for the love of God, no tour packages. Any time at all spent in Taiwan is just too little, in my opinion...sigh...
posted by tully_monster at 8:13 AM on August 26, 2017

Also: if you go the train route, the HSR counter people in Taipei Central Station are extremely helpful and knowledgeable and fluent in English; they can answer most of your logistics questions easily. Bus drivers at your local destinations are also helpful. Many people do rely on cabs to get around, even in places like Taroko Gorge, and they're really not that expensive, but we found mass transit sufficient, for the most part.
posted by tully_monster at 8:33 AM on August 26, 2017

I've traveled with guides before and they can range from amazing folks who help you see things you would never otherwise be able to see and show you a great time to somewhat awkward affairs that make transit easier but don't add a ton to the experience. I think you should go with your gut on whether it will help you see the things you want to in the way you want to or if it will put you on an itinerary you're not excited about.

The most amazing way to see Taroko Gorge is on bicycle, so whether you do it with a guide or not, I would look for a way to be out in the air instead of riding in a car between the 7-9 major stops on the gorge. If you're in shape, there are TONS of ways to rent bicycles in Taipei and ride up and down the gorge, which is quite challenging. If you're not and you would like a guy to drive you to the top with bicycles so you can coast down, memail me and I can give you more info.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:42 AM on August 26, 2017

All the suggestions above for self-guided activities are great, but I'm not sure they are addressing the heart of the question. Regardless of destination, some people prefer to travel on group tours and some prefer independent travel, and it's not just a matter of 'oh, they've just never tried the other option'.

Given that you're wife is willing to compromise on doing some trips independently, I think it's only fair that you do take part in the occasional group tour.

I used to be a tour leader, and I agree that you alone with a leader is not a 'worst case scenario' - most people who work as guides want you to have a good experience and if that means adjusting the itinerary a bit or spending less time with you, then they'll do it. I had a few trips with only 2-3 pax and often they were the best ones because when they did want my help/guiding I was all theirs and when they didn't I actually managed to get some downtime which always resulted in a happier, more accommodating me.

Other tips -
1. In most itineraries there are ways to get around it if you don't like the group (your actual worst case scenario), such as hanging out at sites on your own, keeping to yourself on buses and trains, and sitting by yourselves at group meals. If that happens, use the fact that you're newlyweds as your excuse, and seek out kindred spirits (including the tour guide). You may not be the only one feeling that way.
2. When you're at sites, feel free to opt out of guided tours and do your own thing as long as it's not mandatory to have a guide there - just make sure your guide knows and that you're at the required meeting location on time.
3. Most (all?) companies will let you sign yourself off the tour if you'd like to alter the itinerary a bit (ie - jump ahead or stay longer somewhere and catch up). Your guide will likely also be willing to help you with the logistics but if they do, make sure you tip them a bit extra at the end.

I'm not (ironically) the kind of person who travels on group tours, but I have been on several and they were quite enjoyable in their own way. Just relax and appreciate that you don't have to worry about the logistics and that if something goes wrong, it's not actually your problem.
posted by scrute at 10:45 AM on August 26, 2017

I had to do this with an ex, also in Taiwan and also due to family, and I took that obligation as an opportunity to scout out locations for future independent travel. It put another perspective on the trip that made it acceptable to me, also an inveterate self-planned travel enthusiast.
posted by msittig at 12:00 AM on August 27, 2017

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